What Ray Rice did was inexplicable and inexcusable. Janay Palmer Rice may forgive him but we can’t. We saw what he did. We saw the brutality. And as President Obama learned in reference to a recent round of golf, the optics are everything.
We live in an always-on world. And what’s always on are CCTV cameras and phones that record audio and video and turn all of us into documentary filmmakers. For public figures, there is no privacy and bad behavior will be found out. That’s not going to change, and those who manage the public images of athletes, sports teams and leagues must confront issues that are truly unprecedented.
Long ago, the press was complicit. There was a gentleman’s agreement. We never saw Mickey Mantle falling-down drunk though apparently, he frequently was. College athletes were trumpeted as paragons of virtue. Even when Magic Johnson announced that he had AIDS, there was no rush to delve into his sex life. The narrative was pre-ordained and the third estate had a vested interest in maintaining the mythology surrounding our heroes. Public relations for an athlete, a team or a league was not a constant exercise in crisis management. It’s clear after Penn State and Donald Sterling and now Ray Rice that those days are gone forever. If these issues aren’t deftly managed, they take on a life of their own.
Contrast the Ray Rice situation to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s handling of Donald Sterling. Silver acted swiftly, decisively and unequivocally. He put the problem and the miscreant in the rearview mirror and moved on. It didn’t hurt that Donald Sterling was not a beloved figure. But no one is irreplaceable – the reputation of the league and game are paramount.
Perhaps the Ravens and the NFL were lulled by law enforcement’s apparent indifference to Ray Rice’s crime. There was no smoking gun as there was with Plaxico Burress. Conversely, there was no acquittal as there was with that other Raven named Ray after a murder, missing suit and obstruction of justice conviction in Atlanta.
The NFL has hired former head of the FBI Robert S. Mueller III to investigate the actions of the league. If Commissioner Roger Goodell hasn’t already, perhaps he should consider an outside crisis management expert as well. The next steps are obvious. The NFL will make common cause with a nationally recognized domestic abuse organization, it will produce PSAs featuring NFL wives, and anti-abuse messaging will be included in rookie orientation .
No matter what the mopping-up operation turns out to be, the Ravens and Goodell still must answer Watergate’s infamous questions: “What did you know and when did you know it?” Chances are that whatever Goodell’s answers, he’s already under the bus. He just doesn’t know it yet.
Crisis management for the NFL will be an increasingly tough job. Between John Abraham leaving and Wes Welker refusing to, LeSean McCoy being a lousy tipper and of course Aaron Hernandez, it may be difficult to maintain the position as America’s favorite sport.
At some point, no amount of fantasy leagues, Madden video games and celebration of the secular holiday that is the Super Bowl can disguise the violent, the deadly and the shameful.
Claudia Caplan is Senior Vice President, Business Development at MDC Partners, Inc., holding company for more than fifty advertising and marketing agencies. Throughout her career as a writer and creative director she has worked on accounts from Honda Dirt Bikes to the Baltimore Orioles. You can find her at email@example.com or on Twitter: @claudiacaplan.